Wildlife artist gives presentation

AVELLA, Pa. – Wildlife artist Frank M. Hnat of Hickory was the guest lecturer at the Anthony Valenti Memorial Cultural Lecture Aug. 24 at St. Michael’s Church Hall.

The lecture features an expert in a different field each year. The A.D. White Research Society sponsor the annual dinner and lecture.

Hnat operated his own graphic design firm in the Pittsburgh area for 35 years, along with a custom frame gallery and art supplies shop. Hnat is best known among art enthusiasts for his annual wild bird calendar, and what began as a giveaway for loyal customers has now reached more than 100,000 sales across the country and world.

His popularity has increased as birding has increased in popularity, he said.

“It’s just kind of grown over the last 10 to 15 years,” he said. “The birding industry has just grown. Most artists do wildlife. Very few focus on birds.”

Hnat is in the midst of producing his 28th wild bird calendar. Starting out with black-and-white water fowl drawings, Hnat expanded his offerings to include song birds, larger birds such as turkeys and pheasants, butterflies and floral settings and the occasional wildlife. He’s also gone color.

“I prefer the black-and-white, but people want color,” he said. “They buy color.”

Because he handles all aspects of the artwork, he considers himself an not painter or sketch artist, but an illustrator.

“At my firm, I used to have an artist who was a tempera painter – that’s all he did,” he said. “You had people for airbrushing, lettering – it was all specialized. Today, it’s all done on one computer.”

Hnat’s business has grown to include not only calendars, but prints, note cards, bookmarks and greeting cards. He had several prints available.

“I sign and number each and every one of these,” he said. “I do very small runs of 300, while a lot of artists do around 2,500. To me, 2,500 isn’t a limited edition.”

The art serves a dual purpose – Hnat uses it both for prints and on his calendars and other merchandise. He spoke briefly about the mass production process, noting it has increasingly become digital and allows for more and sharper detail. He usually sends it back for color correction around three or four times, he said.

“I spend four or five hours on a background,” he said. “I want it (the print) to look how I painted it.”

Hnat also discussed his technique and his preferred materials, noting it took him several years to find paper suitable for acrylic and watercolor paints, graphite and ink pens and pastels.

“I usually use a commercial paper, it takes all sorts of media well,” he said.

He uses the Rapid-O-Graph pen, with which he uses approximately nine different nibs, with sizes ranging from a hair-breath to two points. Hnat said he preferred using sepia ink, because it had a “softer” look, and usually uses either watercolor or pastels for color, building it layer on layer until he achieves the right color.

“Only a handful of people in the country use the same technique, and most of them are painters,” said Hnat.

He usually works for three to four hours each morning, estimating it takes approximately 30 hours to sketch, draw, ink and color an average-sized artwork, although larger works take longer.

“I start with a rough sketch, then I look for a model,” he said.

Hnat frequently uses mounted birds borrowed from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to capture accurate detail.

“My work is very detailed,” he said. “I include every little feather. It takes lots of time, but it’s a good past time.”

As for the vegetation and flowers surrounding his birds, Hnat simply walks into his yard and draws what he sees there.

“I go into the field and pick wild flowers and grass for the background,” he said.

A tribute also was paid to Valenti’s memory and his work with the society.

Hnat’s work is on exhibit at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Bridgeville. He has sold his original artwork to organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, American Artist magazine, the National Wildlife Federation and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, in addition to licensing several of his works for reproduction on anything from coffee mugs to T-shirts.

Hnat is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Visit Hnat’s website at www.wildbirdartist.com.

(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at swallace@pafocus.com.)